Design for Disposability

Design is one of the most powerful forces humans have created. Why? Because it influences every single part of our lives — no matter who you are, where you live, or what you do, every human life is impacted by designed products, systems, and services.

This all has a profound effect on our perceptions of the world. Our minds, bodies, and societies are sculpted by design. But so much of what we create is a disaster — for us, for the planet, and for all of the other species we share this marvelous blue dot with.

Why do I say this? Because much of what is designed is done so with the sole intent of creating manipulative, misleading, or misdirected outcomes, in order to get people to consume things they don’t need or see the world in a particular way or for an increase in profit margins.

Design is both manipulative and liberating, subversive and pervasive. It has the potential to be so many good things, but what dominates the designed world right now is disposability.

What is design for disposability?

Design for disposability is a tragic practice that has seen many negative impacts on the planet, from the excessive use of natural resources to the horrendous impacts that hyper-disposability has had on the world’s oceans.

The practice of designing for disposability has become the dominant approach to economic development, where reusable and high-value goods are downgraded into disposable single-use pieces of crap that nobody enjoys.

Let’s be honest — no one likes trash. It’s annoying to find a place to put it, often smells terrible, and for many people, is a source of guilt.

Recycling is not the solution either. It increases the justification of disposability, and now since China is refusing to take the world’s waste, many industrialized nations will have to start dealing with their own mess.

The solution to all of this is disrupting disposability, and the big challenge that we all collectively face now is redesigning things so they work for a future that is post disposable.

When you look up the definition of disposable, design is right up in there: “Designed to be used once or only a limited number of times and then thrown away.” Many dictionary listings then go into a long list of all the everyday convenience products that are now designed for disposability: diapers, coffee cups, plastic cutlery, razors…. the list goes on.

In the noun version, disposability is defined as ‘an article designed to be thrown away after use.’ Make no mistake, nearly everything we create these days is designed to be thrown away after use! Even your expensive technology is designed for disposability.

That’s the very nature of our hyper-disposable society; everything is designed to reduce it’s value rapidly over time until we get to this stage where we have normalized and even praised excessive waste production.

But this is an entirely new phenomenon in the history of humans designing things to meet their everyday needs. Designed for disposability is very much a designed intervention unto itself.

The history of disposability

The dominance of disposability is a very recent invention (Vance Packard first wrote a scathing critique of the practice in the 1960’s) and is directly related to the development of hyper- consumerism. It was invented with a very specific economic objective, to build nations through increased consumption.

The word disposable only came into dominant use in the 1960s, right as reusable milk bottles were being subtly shifted to the new, cheap, and responsibility-free material of plastic. Big companies had to get consumers to be OK with throwing things out after only a one use, marking the 1960s as the start of the disposable revolution.

The big beverage companies wanted to give up on the reusable system that required them to manage the full life cycle of their products. Collecting and washing glass bottles ate into profits, and so the shift to the new cheap, disposable plastic bottle options was a well- orchestrated coup on the general public (and the planet).

At the same time the 60’s saw the second wave environmental movement build as people were protesting Vietnam, demanding that air pollution be cleaned up, and insisting that humans had to respect nature (the first Earth day was in 1970). This meant that the shift to environmentally-damaging single-use products would need to be seamlessly orchestrated, so the beverage industry got together to make sure that the shift was done in a way that reduced the flack against them.

There have been a few exposés (see here and here) on the way these companies got together to fund the Keep America Beautiful Campaign to shift the perspective of whose responsibility disposable waste was. Their dominant narrative was that the consumer should be responsible for the appropriate way of discarding their “convenience” products, and under the guise of this eco-lobby group, they funded many big environmental organizations to push this same agenda and actively lobbied against a container deposit legislation that would incentives better management of the end of life of the disposable products.

Resulting in a well-coordinated misdirection of the problem shifting it away from the main issue of production of single-use consumer goods, to the consumer behaviour of littering being the impact on the environment.

According to the World Bank, at the current rate of generation, global waste is set to triple by 2100, and with significant new investment in plastic manufacturing for disposable products, we are set to see a perpetuation of the addictive cycle that has led us to the mess we are in — that being the all-pervasive disposability practices that designers replicate, governments try to manage and clean up, and everyday citizens like you and me have to accept all of it as normal. It’s so ubiquitous that we don’t even think twice when we break apart our disposable chopsticks as we sit down in a fancy Japanese restaurant.

The relationship to GDP

In order to understand how we have so quickly moved to a single-use pandemic, we have to start off with the history of planned obsolescence, and look at the systemic motivations of Growth Domestic Product (GDP) to see the motivations of disposability over longevity.

Simon Kuznets, the guy who designed the GDP measurement tool to calculate the productivity capacity of the United States during WW2, warned against using this system as a broad economic indicator. Yet very quickly, nations around the world took to measuring their economic position through the calculation of the sale of end-user goods. Basically, anything that you or I consume is considered a ‘good’ in the economy and thus adds to the health of the countries’ economic positions. This means that wars increase GDP, as does anything that requires continual consumption, like disposable stuff.

Consumption started to be measured as sign of the health of an economy, and so nations that wanted to quickly recover from the war (like the United States and Great Britain) quickly demanded that their citizens embrace the disposable hyper-consumption lifestyle.

Planned Obsolescence

In order to facilitate all this nation-building rapid economic growth companies invented planned obsolescence (more here, here, here, here and here)

“Business practice of deliberately outdating an item (much before the end of its useful life) by stopping its supply or service support and introducing a newer (often incompatible) model or version. Its objective is to prod the consumer or user to abandon the currently owned item in favor of the ‘upgrade.’ Most prevalent in computer hardware and software industry.” Definition of planned Obsolescence in the Business Dictionary.

Companies started to design in manipulative consumption tactics to increase the likelihood of customers trading out existing products for newer ones. Consider the minor aesthetic changes to car models each year and the promotion of disposable razors and stockings as making life easier.

Market saturation has a way of encouraging producers to manipulate their customers to continue to buy at the same rate that was obtained in saturating the market. This is the case with cell phones as well as any new technology that builds companies into monolithic giants (and then motivates them to stay in that top dog status). This practice was initiated by the car industry in the 20’s when it needed a way of influencing car owners to buy a new one to maintain market dominance. More recently, there were the Apple lawsuits and the curious case of the inkjet printer saga that resulted in a landmark settlement.

In 1954 an American industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, made a speech where he called upon advertisers & designers to use the concept of planned obsolescence: “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

As the practice of intentionally designing products to break became common practice, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers in 1960 where he called out corporations for “the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.”

Waste and disposability, is very much a product of intent to design a system that perpetuates consumption.

“Design… is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is ‘styling!’” — George Nelson, Industrial Designer

This is not a practice that has gone out of fashion; if anything, it’s become so subversive that many people don’t even realize that their ‘goods’ are designed to be bad at a specific stage (usually right when the company wants to introduce a new product to the market). Apple has been widely criticized for this and recently admitted to slowing down their phones when they release a new one. Companies are often shady about their repair manuals and design screws and fixtures to make it illegal to open or repair broken products.

In 1955, the economist Victor Lebow wrote an article called “Price Competition in 1955.” It’s as boring as this title sounds, but he made some statements that helped usher in the age of designing for disposability.

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies. These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. The home power tools and the whole “do-it-yourself” movement are excellent examples of “expensive” consumption. As we examine the concept of consumer loyalty, we see that the whole problem of molding the American mind is involved here”. — Victor Lebow, economist, 1955

Within 50 years we have moved from everyday reusable products to single-use disposable items that are a blight on our wallets and the environment.

Countries spend billions of dollars every year to build and manage landfills that just compress and bury this stuff. While people complain about dirty cities and giant ocean plastic waste islands, producers continue to deflect all responsibility for the end of life management of their products, and designers are complacent in the perpetuation of stuff designed for disposability.

Sustainable Design Strategies

This is not a new issue; deeply rooted in the practice of design’s history, over three decades of work have pushed the design industry toward more ethical, sustainable, and circular product and service solutions. There are a suite of strategies that help creatives design differently, know as the Sustainable or Eco Design Strategies (or “design for environment”). Many approaches exist that can be designed into the process of creating things that change the status quo of the product and disrupts this linear, waste-filled design system.

Sustainable design strategies include things like: Design for Disassembly, Design for Longevity, Design for Reusability, Design for Modularity, Design for Circularity. You get the point. Several years ago I made a simple card deck that details all these eco design strategies called the Design Play Cards — you can download them here, and you can also take my online class on Sustainable Design here.

What else can you do?

  • Take back ownership of your goods and repair them. Ifixit.com is a fantastic resource as are international repair cafes
  • Start your own community activation using our free post-disposable activation kit
  • Use your economic power to influence the type of goods on the market. Refuse to buy stuff that is designed to break, and instead, invest in higher value, longer-living products. If you are a designer, figure out how to shift the status quo on design.

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If this kind of stuff interests you and you want more, check out my other articles on systems thinking and ways to design a future that works better for all of us, or apply for a program at the UnSchool.

**You can also apply to join our 3-day Post Disposable Design Workshop in Copenhagen with Kaospilot.**

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